Football: Brunei DPMM and Albirex Niigata look to midfield maestros to shine in SPL clash

One of the key players for SPL leaders Brunei DPMM is Belarus forward Andrey Varankow (left), while Albirex Niigata will count on playmaker and skipper Kyoga Nakamura. PHOTOS: FAS, ST FILE

SINGAPORE - First visits third in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Friday night (May 24) at the Jurong East Stadium, and both sides will be counting on the two most in-form players in the league to sparkle again.

League leaders Brunei DPMM will rely on Australian midfielder Blake Ricciuto - winner of the SPL's player of the month and goal of the month awards for April - while Albirex will turn to playmaker and skipper Kyoga Nakamura.

Nakamura, the SPL's best young player in April, has scored braces in each of the White Swans' last two games.

Their individual brilliance might well be needed on Friday given that the first meeting between the two teams this season on March 15 was a tight affair that ended goalless. Both coaches have their opposing dangermen well-scouted.

Said Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi: "I think (Ricciuto) is a good player. His strengths are his height and strength, and he has good momentum too."

The 1.80m, 81kg midfielder Ricciuto, 26, has scored six goals in 10 games this season, with five of them coming in the last six matches. DPMM coach Adrian Pennock hailed his star for his boundless stamina.

"He has fantastic energy, and for a centre midfielder he really gets around the pitch," said the English coach of his Aussie import, who last played for New South Wales-based semi-professional side Rockdale City Suns.

"The other thing about Blake is his character. He's got a very good head on his shoulders, and that's very important coming into a new country, new league, and new culture.

"I didn't want my import players to take 10 games to settle - by then it'd be nearly half the season gone - and the fact Blake is scoring goals and looking very dangerous hasn't surprised me."

Ricciuto's goals have helped DPMM to an unbeaten start to the season, picking up 26 points from 10 games. Albirex have 17 points from nine games.

Former Stoke City assistant manager Pennock noted Albirex have their own goalscoring midfield star Nakamura.

The 23-year-old, who played for Japan in the Under-17 World Cup in 2013, scored the first and last goals in a 4-0 win over Home United, before scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Geylang International. He last played in the third tier of Japan with YSCC Yokohama.

"I think he's a lovely footballer, and I like watching him," said Pennock.

"His balance is very good, he's got a wonderful left foot, and he's one of the best players in the league.

"Obviously, he's a danger, but there are 10 other players we have to worry about as well because Albirex are a very good side."

Shigetomi believes there is more to come from his skipper, saying: "He is still getting used to the physical demands of the SPL."

Pennock will miss four players on Friday - the trio of Nur Ikhwan Othman, Azwan Ali, and Abdul Azizi Ali are suspended, while Hendra Azam remained in Brunei for the birth of his child - but is still confident of pushing Albirex again.

"The first game (in March) was very tough, we played the last 40 minutes with 10 men (after the sending off of Najib Tarif)," he said.

"But I was very pleased with the boys and how they played in that situation against last year's champions.

"With four players out, tomorrow will be a very hard game for us, but we know it's not the end of the world if we lose, and there are still a lot of games to play. We've put ourselves in a good position, and the most important thing is for the boys to show up and perform."

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